There is little doubt that we live in a world fraught with risk and uncertainty. Sadly, stories about violence and other criminal acts are commonplace in the news. As they interact with many people at various locations while conducting business, real estate agents should be extra vigilant. It is important to be aware of personal safety, property crime, and risk avoidance.
In any endeavor where interaction with strangers is a necessary element, personal safety is an issue. Unfortunately, many real estate licensees do not take the issue of personal safety as seriously as they should, feeling that it always happens to “someone else.” If there is any common denominator for real estate-related victims, it is that most crimes are: (1) initiated during daylight hours; and, (2) involve situations where agents work with buyers as opposed to sellers.
The intent of sellers is fairly easy to ascertain—either they have a house to list or they do not. Most of the concern, therefore, lies in a chance encounter with someone posing as a buyer who might have bad intentions. As you read this article, remember that the vast majority of people who real estate licensees deal with are honest, decent, and sincere people.
The following safety tips are offered as samples and ideas to consider. They are not intended to be complete in every respect. Real estate licensees must also follow their company policies and procedures on safety. The proverb, “Better safe than sorry,” applies to this subject like no other.
First, the Good News
• If a licensee follows some simple steps to protect him or herself, there may be little (if any) reason to worry.
• Additionally, real estate licensees play an important role by helping and advising sellers on how to safeguard their property. Many strangers enter the seller’s home during showings and open houses (more about this later).
• Always listen to your instincts and follow this simple rule: If it doesn’t seem right, don’t do it. There is no commission amount in the world that is worth compromising your personal safety.
• Schedule appointments, whether with a seller or a buyer, during daylight hours. If this is not possible, consider using a “buddy system” and taking someone such as another licensee from the office along for the appointment.
• Always have your cell phone immediately accessible. Make sure the battery has a sufficient charge and keep it powered up during showings and other appointments.
• Have a spare car key made and keep it with you to avoid inadvertent lock-outs.
• Consider stocking your car with the following (depending on the season): tire sealer and inflator (check with your tire manufacturer or dealer for any precautions); flashlight; blanket; shovel; gloves; hat; a few basic tools; duct tape; and any other items that may be needed in case of an unexpected stranding.
• Do not wear expensive or flashy jewelry. Leave it at home or in your desk drawer at the office instead. It is better to impress buyers and sellers with competence and professionalism.
• Consider leaving computers, tablets, briefcases, and purses locked in the trunks of your car or hidden out of plain view.
• Always pre-qualify buyers before working with them. If a buyer will not provide their name, address, and/or telephone number in advance of an appointment, a licensee should be wary. It does not mean the buyer’s intentions are suspect, but extra caution may be warranted.
• If possible, attempt to meet buyers for the first time at the office rather than at a property. If this is not practical due to time or distance constraints, consider using the prior discussed “buddy system.”
• Never ride with prospective buyers in their or your car when going to showings. Instead, meet the buyer at the property. Also, never allow guilt to compel you to do something your “gut instincts” tell you might be unsafe or unwise.
• Make sure that someone at the office knows when you are meeting a buyer, the identity of the buyer, the property that you are previewing, and the approximate time you anticipate returning to the office.
• When previewing a property, always let the buyer go into each room first, maintain awareness of the exits, and stay out of enclosed areas such as basements, or at least remain by the staircase.
• Be wary of a male buyer who calls and asks specifically to work with a female licensee, especially if the buyer cannot name a specific agent.
• Instruct your listing sellers that they should always check for windows or entranceways that might have been left unsecured during previous showings. The seller needs to be reminded that other licensees will be showing the property to their buyers.
• Never advertise a seller’s property as being vacant or unoccupied unless the seller requests, in writing, that it be done.
• Let your listing sellers see what your real estate license pocket card looks like so they know how to screen other licensees who show the home. Tell the seller that all licensees are required to carry their pocket card while conducting real estate business. Sellers have the right to ask to see a licensee’s pocket card and refuse admittance if something does not seem right.
• Real estate brokers should maintain a security procedure for the company’s in-office listing keybox and/or lockbox information.
• Always require positive identification when licensees from other companies pick up keys for showings in the seller’s or listing broker’s absence. At a minimum, this should include: (1) a valid, in-state driver’s license with a picture; (2) a business card; and (3) a pocket card.
• If a lockbox is installed on a listed property, and depending on the type of lockbox system that is used, follow all recommended safety protocols.
• Never provide keys or other means to access a listed property to a buyer or other unauthorized party. Unfortunately, one too many “lazy licensees” have given a lockbox combination over the phone to a buyer to see a property without the licensee being present. Only later did the licensee find out it was a criminal posing as a buyer. Under such circumstances, the licensee can be held liable for any resulting property theft or damage. Further, errors and omissions insurance may not cover the licensee’s willful act of misconduct.
• A prudent listing licensee should always recommend that his or her sellers take appropriate action to safeguard their valuables prior to holding an open house. For example, the seller should lock up or move expensive jewelry, firearms, antiques, prescription medicines, or other valuables to another secure location.
• The identity of anyone who enters an open house should be verified. This is generally in the seller’s best interests as well. Criminals typically do not wish to be identified and may leave on their own.
• Consider keeping doors locked, instead of letting prospective buyers knock. Do not be concerned about denying someone access who behaves in a threatening or suspicious manner. A simple statement that you are already working with a buyer may suffice as your rationale for not permitting entry.
• Consider limiting the number of persons who are able to tour the house at any one time.
• Do not allow a multiple-buyer team, for example, spouses or a family, to divide your attention by touring rooms independently. This is a common ploy used by property criminals. Make sure everyone tours the home together.
• When approaching any home, if you see visible signs of a break-in like a smashed window or door, do not enter. Instead, call the police and notify your broker as well as the owner or listing office.
• If you are ever questioned as to the reason for your security measures—for example, a prospective buyer asks if you do not trust them—you can confidently respond that you are following the seller’s wishes or that the tour is being conducted according to office procedures (and that the same precautions would be followed if it was their house being held open).
It is important to remember that while real estate licensees must always be vigilant about crime against persons and property, the statistical likelihood of any particular licensee falling victim is relatively low. As a result, awareness rather than fearfulness is the key. Our primary focus as real estate professionals remains on doing the best job possible to meet our clients’ needs and expectations. We just need to remember to do it with a watchful eye.
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